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Ants Escape Nature’s Sarlacc Pits with Jaw Jumps

The fastest moving body part in the animal kingdom might belong to Odontomachus, or trap-jaw ant. Using mechanisms in their heads that can lock the jaws in place, these ants can flick some internal switch and snap its mandibles shut with incredible speed — between 126 and 230 kilometers per hour (78–143 mph). The force of a trap-jaw’s bite is enough to cut through prey, eject predators, and fling itself away from danger.

It is this “jaw jump” that occasionally saves them from nature’s sarlacc pit: the antlion, a predatory larvae that sits in wait at the bottom of constructed sand pits with jaws beared.

TrapJaw_FEATThe trap-jaw ant can use those powerful snappers like a rocket-jump.

Reporting this week in the journal PLOS ONE, entomologists Fredrick Larabee and Andrew Suarez of the University of Illinois have found that trap jaw ants can fling themselves out of dreaded antlion pits by snapping their jaws against the pit’s sand. While not always successful, the escape attempts are dramatic (and hilarious):


To find out whether or not the jaws jumps made a difference in ant survival, Larabee and Suarez conducted 117 trials with trap-jaw worker ants forced to face the tiny sarlaccs. A third of the ants didn’t make it. The rest escaped via running or a jaw jump. Only a fourth of the jaw jumps attempted were successful, but it resulted in 15 percent of the trial ants angling their jaws against the sand, raising their legs, and flipping backwards out of  harm’s way (though some just hit the sides of the pit and became lunch).

Seeing as the jaw jumps weren’t the go-to plan for the ants — the majority of escaping ants simply ran — Larabee and Suarez wanted to see whether the jaw escape was some kind of fluke and not an evolutionarily-crafted technique. So the duo restrained Odontomachus jaws (read: gluing them together) to see if it would significantly decrease survival rates. It did by up to 4.7 times.

Think about the forces involved in a jaw jump attempt for a minute. It’s estimated that the ants are subjecting themselves to accelerations of 100,000 Gs and forces up to 300 times more than the body weight of the ant while ejecting. This would be like high-fiving a friend hard enough to throw yourself out of a building.

“…[Jaw jumping] increases individual survival of the ants during predatory encounters by about twofold,” conclude the authors. In other words, the jaws function both as ridiculously powerful weapons and a decent escape method, suggesting that this isn’t some fluke, but rather an evolved fail-safe.

“These results support the idea that in the genus Odontomachus, predatory trap-jaws have been evolutionary co-opted for defense.”

Boba Fett should have taken a page out of evolution’s book.

STUDY: Mandible-Powered Escape Jumps in Trap-Jaw Ants Increase Survival Rates during Predator-Prey Encounters

IMAGES: Lucasarts, Bioware; Larabee, Suarez; Bernard DUPONT

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